|Mountains overlook an old French tank, next to the Dien Bien Phu runway|
Upon landing, I follow two old Vietnamese men out the plane's door, and onto the tarmac. These two seniors have been here before; they're war veterans, but they didn’t fight Americans. One sports a long Ho Chi Minh beard. Although wearing civilian clothes, they both wear Vietnamese Army pith helmets over their greying hair.
Down at the end of the airstrip, I make
|Vietnamese victory monument overlooks the town|
When the Viet Minh defeated the French Army here after a 57 day siege, the western world was stunned. Their alarm was not just about the loss of another distant colony. The cold war was already in full swing, so western countries were shocked that for the first time, a European army had been decisively defeated by a communist army.
I debated whether I should come here or not, since the battle for Dien Bien Phu took place long before the American War. But, I decided the journey here was necessary. If I was to really understand Vietnam today, I had to travel to the battlefield where Vietnam’s independence was reborn in the past.
Since I’ve arrived in Dien Bien Phu close to the battle’s anniversary, my trip coincides with half price flights offered by Vietnam Airlines for veterans to return to the battlefield. That explains the two old vets on my flight. Not that the regular fare is too expensive for me; my regular fare ticket was only $112 roundtrip from Hanoi. Passing through the small terminal, the veterans leave with some local soldiers, and I taxi off to my hotel. After dropping my luggage, I head out to see the town.
|Lizards on sale in the Dien Bien Phu market!|
As modern homes were built Dien Bien Phu was reborn, and business grew. A nearby border crossing has improved commerce to Laos, though trade is limited. As I walk around town, I find more construction is in progress in this growing town. Building here can still be hazardous today, with tons of old shells buried underground. Unexploded munitions left over from the long battle still remain scattered all over the valley.
|Hill tribe women in the town market|
Also in the market, I see shoppers from local hill tribes, wearing colorful woven clothing and head dresses. There are Hmong and Thais still living in town, while others drove down on motorbikes from surrounding mountain villages. A century ago hill tribe folk made up the majority of the provincial population, but they are gradually being outnumbered. As more ethnic Vietnamese move in, Dien Bien Phu has surpassed 20,000 residents.
Leaving the market, I make my way on foot to the battle site known as Eliane 2. This was one of many heavily fortified, hilltop French firebases around the valley, and was key to their overall defense. The town’s main street goes right by the base of the hill, and I head for the top. Ascending the hill I pass barbed wire, an old captured tank, and reach the command bunker at the peak.
|Trenches from the 'Eliane 2' battle|
|Fighting here was much like WWI trench warfare|
Many trenches zig-zag around the hillside. French Foreign Legion troops dug in deeply, building a trench network to hold the line against advancing Viet Minh. Stepping down into a trench, I peer into some of the bunkers along the old trench line. Life for all the French forces trapped here was dirty, muddy, and miserable. Fighting here was fierce trench warfare, much like the fighting on the Western Front of France during World War I.
|Looking out of an old 'Eliane 2' bunker, new houses can be seen|
|A huge bomb crater from the battle has been preserved on the hill|
I look up out of the trench, and I’m surprised to see one of the old Vietnamese veterans who was on my flight walking nearby. It’s the shorter vet with the goatee, and he has changed out of his civilian clothes into a full army uniform. I’m astonished at the number of medals he’s wearing; there must be 15 of them across his chest. I wonder if he fought here, as Eliane 2 saw some of the most intense fighting of the battle, including hand to hand combat. Paratroopers and French Legionnaires fought off wave after wave of Viet Minh attackers day and night, until they finally ran out of ammunition and were overwhelmed.
|A Vietnamese war veteran walks alone on the old 'Eliane 2' battlefield of Dien Bien Phu|
Still wearing his pith helmet, the old veteran’s face looks stoic, but I can tell that he’s in deep thought. I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he remembering the bloody battle for this hill, more than a half century ago? Is he recalling the loss of old friends, buried beneath those headstones?
Then he turns and walks away, rejoining a group of veterans further down the hill. It doesn’t matter what side a soldier was on, or what war he was in. So much of the pain that a war veteran endures, is endured alone.